When Joe Marsala was a kid in Texas, an excitable neighbor would call him over regularly to see a special new plant she had found. After a career as a computer scientist and a mathematician, primarily for the Department of Defense, the Lothian retiree can correct his neighbor. "All plants are pretty special," the master gardener said.
Carol Youmans was working in an Annapolis framing store when someone from a local theater group came in to get a poster framed. What were the requirements to work at the Colonial Players, the former teacher asked idly. "There aren't any," she was told. That was 35 years ago, remembered Youman, now the artistic director.
Joe Perona retired at 53 — he was also government mathematician and a computer scientist — to explore what interested him: ice skating, tae kwan do, billiards, powerboating, personal watercraft and, since he'd always wanted to be a college professor, teaching. He stumbled into a yoga class. That was 18 months ago, and the Riva resident has been back nearly every day since.
These three found more than something to occupy their time in retirement. They found new passions. Stumbled on them, actually. There was no plan to become a master gardener, a theater director or a yogi. But each found something to devote more than their time to and add life to their retirement.
These new passions do more for retirees than fill their days with pleasure. A body of research that shows they are also healthier, said Samantha Warfield, spokesman for the nonprofit Corporation for National and Community Service, which, among other things, sponsors the Senior Corps programs.
"There is lower mortality, increased strength and energy, decreased rates of depression and fewer physical limitations," she said.
As Perona put it: "Yoga wasn't even remotely anything I was looking for. Now I can't imagine life without it."
Marsala, 73, learned a little something about plants, trees and shrubs by tending the landscaping around the various homes where he lived.
After retiring, he heard about the Anne Arundel County Master Gardener program, under the University of Maryland Extension, and signed up for it. He drank in the new information during the intensive training program.
But the volunteer opportunities required to maintain his certification were not very satisfying. He wanted to work with the public, and he wanted to share what he had learned.
"I loved the idea of educating people," said the Texas A&M graduate, who never took a single horticultural course while he was there.
So Marsala borrowed an idea from his master gardening counterparts in New England and set up the Ask a Master Gardener program in Anne Arundel County. He trains and schedules 60 master gardeners who set up shop at farmers' markets and libraries every Saturday from April to October to answer questions and inspire gardeners with demonstrations.
"I had no idea this thing was going to get so big," said Marsala, who finds he is neglecting his own acre and a half in Lothian. "Our clients not only expect us to be there, they depend on us. They take it for granted that we will be there to answer their questions."
The plant clinics on Saturdays at the Annapolis Farmers' Market on Riva Road, the Severna Park Farmers' Market on Route 2, and at the West County and Crofton libraries fielded about 4,500 queries last year. The questions become more sophisticated every year, he said.
"Horticulture is becoming a national pasttime," he said.
Marsala loved his job running super-computer labs for the government, but he said he loves this just as much, if not more.
"I like hanging out with these people," he said. "Garden people are just good people."
Youmans, 74, has a strong literary background — she studied at Bryn Mawr College — and she taught high school English and composition at St. Anselm Abbey School in Washington for a decade. When she and her husband moved to Annapolis 35 years ago, she left teaching and took the job at the framing shop where she made the theater connection she never knew she wanted.
She served as a gofer for a production of "Our Town" at Colonial Players in 1979. After that, she immersed herself in every aspect of production, including props and lighting design. But it was eight years before her son declared, "Mom, you should be directing."
Her husband, Jack, encouraged her to volunteer at Colonial Players.
"Good," he thought, Carol Youmans recalled. "That will give her something to do when I bowl."
But within weeks, he was beside her, painting sets. "He never looked back," she said, "and he hasn't bowled since."
Now she is the theater's artistic director, which means she is part of the team that selects the shows and chooses the directors. There are six or seven shows a season — some with a "viewer discretion advised" sticker on the playbill. She will return to directing when her time as artistic director is over.
Like Marsala, who found the educational component of being a master gardener so appealing, Youmans is invigorated by what she can learn from each play. Each part of a production, from lighting design to character development, has a role in telling a story, she said. And she and her fellow volunteers at Colonial Players have a role in breathing life into that story.
"And I love the people, whether they are characters in the play or the actors on the stage," she said. "I will be doing this until I drop."
It took a lot of planning to retire at 53, said Perona, who left his job in the defense community 15 years ago. But he wanted time to pursue the things that interested him — primarily, teaching in college, a job he always had imagined for himself.
He's been teaching math ever since at Anne Arundel Community College. But his schedule allowed time for the physical fitness he never had time for when he worked.
"I would skip lunch and walk up and down the stairs instead," he said of his working years.
He signed up for aerobics and, after 30 years at a desk job, was surprised to find that he could keep up.
There were other sports, too. Ice skating and martial arts and some yoga classes. But there also were several surgeries, two on his back and one on his knee, and a pair of serious abdominal surgeries. Each required a long, frustrating recovery. Each time, he gained weight.
Determined to get back into shape, he signed up 18 months ago at Evolutions, a gym, yoga and Pilates center in Annapolis. He took another yoga class and never looked back. He has barely missed a day since.
"My weight went down, and I felt stronger," he said. "But I also began to experience the clarity of thought that they talk about.
"I went there with physical goals, and I found that," he said. "But the benefits of the process are there. Yoga is the foundation of what I do. I can't imagine my life without it."
Perona finds that he can keep up quite well with the mothers of toddlers on the mats beside him. He has energy, no matter how hard he works in class. He has gotten even more out of the classes because of the spiritual leadership of his teachers.
Yoga healed his body but also sharpened his mind.
"I don't make any serious decisions if I haven't been in several days," he said. "I find that if I have something on my mind, when I leave class I can frame it differently."
Practicing yoga was not on Perona's list of things to explore when he retired 15 years ago.
"Now I can't imagine ever stopping."
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